Venezuela’s opposition yesterday held an unofficial referendum to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro as he seeks to create a legislative superbody that his adversaries call the consolidation of a dictatorship.
The symbolic poll, which also asked voters if they want early elections, is intended to further dent Maduro’s legitimacy amid a crippling economic crisis and months of anti-government protests that have led to around 100 deaths.
The opposition has cast the vote, which took place at some 2,000 centres around the country, as an act of civil disobedience to be followed by “zero hour,” a possible reference to a national strike or other escalated actions against Maduro.
Queues formed early at improvised polling stations at theatres and roundabouts in the oil-rich nation of 30mn as Venezuelans furious over food shortages and rampant inflation sought to make their voices heard.
But the atmosphere was festive under the Caribbean sun, with people blasting music, honking from their cars and waving flags.
“We want this government of Nicolas (Maduro) out. We’re tired of not seeing solutions, there are people dying of hunger,” said Mercedes Guerrero de Ramirez, an 80-year-old former hospital worker, who was first in line at the polling station at 5.30am in the border city of San Cristobal.
But the vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country’s political stalemate.
Maduro, 54, said the plebiscite is illegal and meaningless.
Instead, the leftist leader is campaigning for an official July 30 vote for the new assembly, which will be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.
The two elections this month are a show of force from each side.Both the government and opposition are effectively boycotting the other, hoping to legitimise themselves in the polarised environment.
“The constituent assembly is crazy. Maduro wants more power, more money, and to drive us crazy,” said garage employee Maolis Coronado, 26, after voting in a poor district of Caracas, adding that she was only eating cheap starches and had put off having a child because of the economic crisis.
Voters yesterday were being asked if they reject the constitutional assembly, if they want the armed forces to defend the existing constitution, and if they want elections before Maduro’s term in office ends in 2018.
Some public employees, under government pressure not to participate in opposition events, are seeking creative ways to vote in the plebiscite without being noticed.
The vote also includes participation by swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad to escape the Opec nation’s increasingly dire economy.
Venezuelans were casting ballots from Madrid to Miami.
The opposition is hoping millions turn out and promises results will be available by today morning.
But they face major obstacles.
They do not have access to traditional electoral infrastructure for the hastily convened plebiscite, and the elections council — which the opposition calls a pawn of Maduro — is simultaneously holding a test-run for the July 30 vote.
Also, state telecommunications regulator Conatel has ordered radio and TV stations not to use the word “plebiscite” on air and has told them to pull opposition ads for the vote, according to Venezuela’s main organisation of media workers.
State TV showed nothing but the simulation of the government’s July 30th vote through the day.
A high opposition turnout would reflect widespread national dissatisfaction with Maduro and bolster the campaign to remove him, while low attendance would give the ruling Socialist Party a boost for the constitutional assembly.
Government officials say the plebiscite violates laws requiring elections to be organised by the elections council.
“We are not going to let the Venezuelan right wing impose themselves and harm the people,” said Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello during a Saturday rally for the constitutional assembly.
The vote comes against the backdrop of near daily anti-government protests.
Masked youths with stones, Molotov cocktails and homemade mortars have battled riot forces using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets since April.
The unrest has resulted in fatalities among both demonstrators and security forces, mostly from gunshots, as well as hundreds of arrests and thousands of injuries.
Maduro has repeatedly refused to recognise the authority of the National Assembly since the opposition won control of it in a 2015 landslide election, which his critics call evidence he is eroding democratic institutions in order to retain power.
The former union organiser says the country is victim of an “economic war” and that opposition protests are an effort to overthrow him with US connivance, which the United States has denied.
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